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    How Masculine Women Craft New Ideals of Beauty

    ‘Nu hanzi’ is a label used positively in China to describe strong, independent females, but the term itself is patriarchal.

    Chinese urban women are in a state of transformation. Traditionally treated like “princesses,” many of these females are becoming nu hanzi, a slang term that translates to “masculine woman.”

    The princesses are stereotypically egocentric, dependent, and selfish women with a false sense of entitlement. They expect their boyfriends to tie their shoelaces, carry their purses, and open bottles of water for them.

    Most of them are urbanites born after the implementation of the one-child policy in 1978. As China’s new market economy began picking up speed in the 1990s, disposable incomes grew and people became more materialistic. Being single children also meant they received all the financial and emotional attention from their parents, which would normally have been split among siblings, and came to famously be known as “little emperors” and “little princesses.”

    However, as more “princesses” have been exposed and mocked in the media in recent years, their antithesis — the nu hanzi — has gathered appeal, drawn support, and become a salient feminine ideal.

    Nu hanzi now refers to women who are independent, capable, outgoing, and mentally and physically strong. Articles that flesh out the definition of nu hanzi present them as a direct response to the princesses. A nu hanzi not only opens her own water bottles, but refuses help when changing the barrel on the water cooler. She carries her own luggage, not just her purse. She gets along with men and is called a “bro.” Despite some of the frivolous descriptions of behaviors in a nu hanzi’s repertoire, like lounging in fancy restaurants or sitting around shirtless at home when it’s hot outside, the main tenet of these girls is clear: being an independent adult.

    According to a survey conducted by Guangzhou Daily last year in Foshan, in southern China’s Guangdong province, 80 percent of the women interviewed said that they want to be a nu hanzi, while 56.1 percent of those interviewed born after the 1980s consider themselves one.

    But why are many women suddenly so interested in being viewed as nu hanzi? One reason might be that modern-day Chinese women are rising to all kinds of social challenges and want to be taken seriously by men. In competing for job positions, gender inequalities mean that women typically have to work harder and be more aggressive than their male counterparts. 

    The popular motto of modern women jokingly reveals these social challenges and expectations. In a jingle created by net users and widely circulated on social media, to be a woman in the 21st century, one needs to be “elegant enough to host guests, diligent enough to make good cuisine, and skilled enough in information technology to kill any computer virus; she must be able to scale a wall, drive a nice car, afford a good apartment, defeat mistresses, and beat up hooligans.”

    The public push toward this trend of independent women is captured by reality TV shows, which show interactions between people with different dispositions and garner a lot of online discussion that show just how little the princess syndrome is appreciated.

    One example is the stark contrast between adult actress Xu Qing and child celebrity Cindy Tian, both of whom have recently been in the media for embodying princesses and nu hanzi.

    In “Divas Hit the Road” — a reality show where celebrities are given a limited budget to complete a travel itinerary — Xu Qing expressed great reluctance to living in modest hotels and having to take a bus to the airport instead of a taxi. The show amplified her princess syndrome, and her negative portrayal and responding disapproval from fans shows that this type of behavior is very unappealing to Chinese viewers.

    Conversely, in another reality show “Dad, Where Are We Going?” then 5-year-old Cindy Tian, the daughter of former Olympic diver Tian Liang, is portrayed as a strong, independent girl who doesn’t mind roughing it.

    Of course, nu hanzi sometimes face negative portrayals, with some critics stating that it is unattractive for a female to be so manly. What’s more problematic is that a girl has to be named a “masculine woman” — someone resembling a man — in order to explain her independence. Thus, the term nu hanzi becomes part of patriarchal discourse and in turn devalues women.

    But the core message that this new trend sends out — that women must be self-reliant — is a precious wake-up call. And I welcome the day when the nu hanzi ideal triumphs completely over the princess. At that time it will be clear to all women that they should take control and bear responsibility for themselves.

    (Header image: A girl practices boxing at a club in Haikou, Hainan province, Nov. 13, 2015. Zhang Mao/VCG)